When Bed-Stuy resident Dusty St. Amand was growing up in an industrial town of Florida, his exposure to gay media was limited. In fact, as a gay teenager in the 1990s, it boiled down to one type of gay media for him: pornography. “At the time I was hiding, looking at these images, trying to find other people like me,” St. Amand told Brooklyn Magazine in a phone interview. “I was printing out porn from the internet and hiding it in books.” But now, as a photographer, the creative’s work is a direct response to those same images, seeking to portray a sort of masculinity he didn’t have a chance to see growing up.
Though St. Amand got his start in New York in 2008 working in restaurants, he was in no way just passing the time. “I was building a viable hospitality career,” he said. But eventually, he realized his “competitive spirit” was misplaced. It eventually led him to photography.
“I was recognizing more and more that we were an image based culture and I was saying to myself ‘I think I have things to say,’” he recalled. “I think that drive to communicate and especially be a voice among queer artists and queer people who see themselves reflected in me is what led me to photography.” Now with a published book titled Of Messages and Men, a solo show at the Leslie Lohman Museum and almost a year-long working relationship with Grindr under his belt, the self-described nomad has found a career path that’s been a lot more fulfilling.
“The camera has become my way to talk to a lot of people at once, to engage in global conversations and meet people,” St. Amand says. For the subject of those conversations, St. Amand finds himself returning to those same images he sought out during his adolescence. “The only role models I had in the images I saw growing up were pornstars. That affected me and I think that affected a lot of people about how they thought they were supposed to act and how they were supposed to fulfill themselves artistically, sexually, sensually.”
In the 1990s, porn was industrial, one built on traditional stereotypes and tropes. Depictions of masculinity were overt, cartoon-ish even. Rippling muscles, an overabundance of plaid and other meaningless details emphasized a hollow but staid version of masculinity. Femininity too was extreme. But that’s not how reality is. “I think there’s a lot of polarized media when it comes to the performative aspect of gender,” St. Amand explained. “I think we either see things that are brooding and overtly textbook male or we see things that are exploring what was historically thought of as feminine but there isn’t a lot in the middle; for guys who are just like i’m just a man who has feelings.”
It’s a problem that has become a large part of cultural conversations in the past few years. Social media often discusses hashtags like #masculinitysofragile and #carefreeblackboy, the latter of which refers to men of color who have and show their feelings and creativity plainly while films highlight the effects toxic masculinity has on teens. Moonlight, which is up for eight Oscars this year, shows how singular accepted presentations of masculinity demand conformity, sometimes violently and typically are a part of a cycle. St. Amand hopes to disrupt this sort of cycle with his work, that’s frequently sensual, and emotional while at the same time showing the lithe, muscled frames of mostly queer men. Many of these images are currently available in his ongoing print sale but most importantly they present alternate versions of masculinity to be included in today’s narrative.
A recent series of images and videos the 30-year-old has been working on have been particularly pointed at this intersection. The videos, which currently have been dubbed with the working title “Softcover” feature random models around Bushwick set to the covers of pop songs. “The tone between the music videos and the images has definitely had a consistent feel of seasonal affective disorder,” St. Amand explained. The title alludes to softcore porn as well as the pop covers that bring the clips to life: “This winter time, private space, depressive, sexual hibernation.”
In one of these clips, artist Sam Waxman appears, muscled body at one point clothed, then in Papi-branded briefs, then wrapped in plastic wrap. All the while Richard Cortez strums his guitar in a soulful, moving take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” In another, model Christopher Ammon appears in various stages of undress, sometimes even in leather chaps while Corey Ryan Matos strums on a ukelele and performs Grease’s “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.“ A third yet features photographer Tayte Hanson caressing his own muscled frame as Matos returns for a rendition of “You Don’t Own Me.” All of it is a reaction to those images St. Amand squirreled away growing up, it’s an attempt to see himself in the world.
“That’s what I’m doing now,” St. Amand says. “I’m just projecting my feelings of sensuality and sex and intimacy. Maybe it will validate someone else’s feelings, particularly any softness that they feel in their masculinity; to be male and to feel at the same time is not always perpetuated.”